Atheism, Agnosticism, and Beliefs in God in the United States: 1988-2000 General Social Surveys (N=7,980).
Yesterday, a Pew Funded study on American religion was released, with much fanfare. It seems to be an OK study, but I suspect that it’s high on N, and low on response rate. Plus, there is only so much you can do with a single shot, cross-sectional study. Change happens over time, and across generations. At one particular instance, you only get a view of what seems to be.
Still, one thing that is becoming more salient in studies of American religion is that substantially more people are opting out of religious affiliation, and embracing non-Christian views of the nature of the supernatural. Currently, the best available data from the General Social Surveys show that over 16% of Americans are Atheists, Agnostics, or believers in a supernatural that does not reflect a “god”. That’s about the same proportion of Americans who reject a religious affiliation, and, predictably, there’s about a 55% overlap–non-believers and unconventional believers aren’t connected to religious groups.
In earlier cohorts, virtually all Americans reported growing up with a religious affiliation, while GSS data show that more than 10% of Americans born after 1970 were raised without a religious affiliation. What has happened? One of the key factors is that Americans are now more free to choose not to consume religion. Throughout most of American history, anyone wanting to establish status in the community, protection for their family and children, or solvency for their businesses, would be forced to project some aura of piety by embracing affiliation with a Christian denomination (with a token nod to allowing Jews some standing). To fail to be religious was considered proof of illegitimacy and immorality, and we still see strong vestiges of this–particularly in the political realm where candidates must profusely declare their allegiance to Christianity (and maybe Judaism).
Throughout the 20th Century, Christian activists helped undermine their own moral authority by evidencing quite prominent moral failings. The racist bigotry, warmongering, greed, child abuse and molestation, misogyny, and hypocritical sexual behaviors commonly found in Christian America enabled non-religious persons to reject the moral condescension of Christian activists, and to establish alternative sources of social status and moral standing. Now, the non-religious have more voice to respond, and to tell their children that religious fanaticism and hypocrisy are morally undesirable traits.